Harvey’s recent post on Mr Sampat sparked off a brief discussion on one of Hindi cinema’s finest character actors, Motilal. Since Motilal was known—at least in the 50’s and 60’s—as a character actor, it seemed appropriate to review a film in which he’s the hero. Not that Ek Thi Ladki (‘There was a girl’) really allows much scope for a hero. True to its name, it centres around its heroine, the spunky and vivacious Meena Shorey. But Motilal is a very likeable leading man; I S Johar, in his debut, is a deliciously crooked crook; and one of my favourite vamps—Kuldeep Kaur—is in it too.
The film starts off on a morose note, with Meena (Meena Shorey) getting it in the neck from her landlady for not paying rent. Meena is an orphan, with not a soul in the world to call her own. The landlady tells Meena that today is Meena’s last chance to pay up. Meena, however, is hopeful of getting a job: she’s been called for an interview at an office.
Poor girl. Her luck’s so down, when she enters the office of the man she’s supposed to meet, she discovers that someone’s skewered him to his desk with a dagger through his back:
Meena has the good sense not to touch the dagger, but she’s already been seen—by two thieves, Sohan (I S Johar) and Mohan (?). Sohan and Mohan have just emerged from jail after serving their nth sentence. They’d been meaning to borrow some money off the dead man; now, looking in through the window, they decide they’d better run before someone pins the crime onto them.
But in the hullabaloo that ensues, it’s Meena whom suspicion falls on. Everybody in the office comes crowding around. In the melee, Meena manages to escape—straight into the hands of Sohan and Mohan. They’ve already decided between themselves that Meena can be a useful ally; now they tell her that they’ll take her under their wing and help her get away from the crowd, since they know she isn’t the murderer.
Gullible Meena is easily taken in. Sohan and Mohan tell her that the best way for her to stay clear of the law would be to disguise herself—as a princess—and they (Sohan and Mohan) will be her secretaries. To kit themselves out, they pressure Meena into pawning a gold necklace she’s wearing.
I personally don’t think wearing shimmery salwar-kurtas makes Meena Shorey look anything other than herself, but Meena seems to think it’s a believable disguise. Sohan and Mohan take her along and they check into a posh hotel, passing Meena off as the Princess of Champatpur.
The Princess of Champatpur unwittingly drops one brick after the other, but Sohan and Mohan cover up by telling the hotel manager how unaffected and devoid of pride their lady is. The bellboy, bringing the suitcases, also drops a brick—literally—when one suitcase springs open. Sohan passes it off as an ancient brick from the Champatpur Palace; a museum in Bombay, he says, wants to buy the brick for a vast sum. Little does the hotel manager realise that all those heavy suitcases are stuffed full of bricks.
Anyway, Sohan quickly comes to the crux of the matter: he hands over a cheque for Rs 2,000 to the manager and asks for someone to go off to the bank and encash it. In the meantime, could the manager please lend that amount to the Princess’s secretaries? They need it urgently. The manager can keep the Rs 2,000 cash that’ll be withdrawn from the bank.
Just then, who should happen to pass by but Hukumat Rai (?), the police inspector who’s been keeping an eye on Sohan and Mohan. He sees the two up to what seems like no good.
And, seeing Meena going up to her room, he follows her, has a word, and shows her this incriminating photograph:
Her best buddies are ex-jailbirds! Meena isn’t one to stay around and watch what happens; she changes into her own clothes, gathers up whatever little possessions she has, and escapes via the balcony. Sohan and Mohan, when they see her running off, figure out that they’d best be leaving too. After all, the hotel manager will soon discover he’s been handed a fake cheque.
So we have Meena rushing along, and Sohan and Mohan rushing along too in her wake, trying to catch up with her. To avoid them, she eventually ducks into an office, where she’s mistaken for a girl who was supposed to come for an interview. Meena tries to say they’ve made a mistake, but she’s a bit tongue-tied, and nobody listens to her anyway. She ends up being hired as personal secretary to the Manager, Ranjit (Motilal).
She bumbles along a bit—for instance, she doesn’t know shorthand, so improvises her own:
…and finds herself being looked at askance by Ranjit’s jealous fiancée Bimla (Kuldeep Kaur). Bimla’s father owns the company in which Ranjit works, and Bimla is very possessive about Ranjit.
The next morning, Ranjit arrives in office to find Meena asleep on his desk—she gives him a story about having been too busy to go home. While they’re trying to sort out Meena’s penchant for sleeping on desks, Bimla’s father arrives. He and Ranjit get to discussing a certain Seth Shyam Sunder, whom the company is hoping to do a deal with. Seth Shyam Sunder lives in Delhi, and Ranjit has sent him a letter letting him know that he, Ranjit, will be sending a representative to discuss the contract.
Bimla’s father, however, feels that the contract with Seth Shyam Sunder is too valuable for it to be entrusted to a mere minion. Ranjit should go himself.
So Ranjit instructs Meena to book tickets for himself and for her, to Delhi. Also, she should send a telegram to a hotel, booking rooms for them in Delhi.
Which Meena does, diligently enough. The problem is that when they reach Delhi and get to the hotel, whom should Meena notice there but two old friends? Mohan and Sohan, none other.
Frightened, Meena quickly backs out of the lobby, to where Ranjit is paying off the taxi. She gives him some rigmarole about there being no rooms available at the hotel. And as luck would have it, rooms seem to be in short supply everywhere in Delhi. Things are so bad that Meena and Ranjit finally sit down on a bench in Company Bagh—and when it starts raining, get under the bench.
The next day, Ranjit is sore at Meena, and gives her an ultimatum: she’d better find them rooms, no matter where or how. Even, he says in a huff, if they have to wash dishes for accommodation.
Ranjit doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for. Meena, scanning the newspapers, finds one suitable option: boarding and lodging offered for a servant. She reasons that since Ranjit had given her the go-ahead, this will be acceptable.
The lady (Shakuntala) who’d advertised is desperate for a servant: she’s sick of doing the housework ever since her previous servant quit. So, even though she’s:
(a) surprised that Meena’s so fashionable, for a servant;
(b) concerned when Meena says there will be two of them (the lady automatically assumes that Meena will be bringing her husband along); and
(c) taken aback when Meena implies that the said husband is more than a little eccentric:
—she agrees to employ Meena. And Meena’s ‘husband’ too.
Ranjit hasn’t been quite so fortunate. Seth Shyam Sunder (?) is very busy and has time to meet only two of the many people waiting to see him. These two, who claim to be well-respected owners of a construction company, are vying for a valuable contract. They convince Seth Shyam Sunder that he should award the contract to them, and give them a hefty sum as an advance. He is so impressed that he even invites them home for dinner.
Sohan and Mohan are up to their tricks again.
(They even dupe Ranjit of Rs 20 while all of them are sitting in the lobby outside Seth Shyam Sunder’s office).
When Ranjit meets Meena that afternoon, he informs her that he hasn’t been able to meet Seth Shyam Sunder. Worse still, the next 4 days are holidays, and all offices will be closed. Ranjit and Meena will have to stay on in Delhi till offices open after 4 days. He hopes she’s managed to get accommodation for them.
Meena, resourceful as ever, tells Ranjit that she’s discovered an old uncle and aunt in Delhi. The uncle and aunt have invited Meena and Ranjit to stay at their house. She warns him, though, that the two old people are somewhat eccentric.
And so the scene is set. Meena and Ranjit turn up at the home of their employers. Now Meena must keep both sides happy: Ranjit mustn’t realise he’s here as a servant, and not the boss of a much-loved niece. The master and mistress of the house mustn’t realise that the ‘husband’ of the jodi is not a servant at all. Even if she goes nuts in the process, Meena must play ball…
…and all without realising (or even Ranjit realising) that they’ve unwittingly become the servants of Seth Shyam Sunder himself. And that Sohan and Mohan will be turning up for dinner shortly. And that far away in Bombay, Bimla is steadily growing more and more suspicious of her fiancé’s sudden lack of communication from Delhi, and has now decided to accompany her father to Delhi to see what’s up.
Though it’s a little silly in places, Ek Thi Ladki is, on the whole, a light-hearted and frothy film. It’s fast-paced, often funny, and even though it takes a turn for the melodramatic in the last half-hour, it never descends into serious tragedy. You somehow know that things will turn out right for this ladki.
What I liked about this film:
Meena Shorey and Motilal. Great casting! Meena is enterprising, scatter-brained, a bit of a nut—and really rather sweet. And Ranjit, though he seems a little dauntingly officious in the beginning, has a great sense of humour. As a couple, they are delightful: she with her laughing eyes (even when she bursts into mock tears, which she does at the mere thought of being thwarted), and he with the affectionate way in which he treats her. They do have some romantic songs, but their sweetest moments are the most prosaic: like when she cries because she’s so unhappy, and he manages to cheer her up—then offers her his handkerchief. When she’s mopped up her tears, she blows her nose in his handkerchief, and he spends his time egging her on to blow harder!
The music, by Vinod. Harvey discovered that this was the Lara lappa film, and yes, it is—Lara lappa is the best-known song from Ek Thi Ladki, but there are other nice ones too, such as the lovely shikara song, Hum chalein door and the mad Dilli se aaya bhaai Tingoo.
What I didn’t like:
Some of the humour is unfunny. There is, for instance, a very bad ventriloquist in the hotel where the ‘Princess of Champatpur’ stays: he’s terrible, and his ‘funny dummy’, at whom the audience laugh their heads off, is singularly lacking in hilarity. Even otherwise, there are some instances of what may have been supposed to be funny (Seth Shyam Sunder’s initial interactions with Ranjit) but are just a little tedious.
The last half hour or so lacks the zip and pep of the rest of the film. It loses momentum, it moves from froth and farce to melodrama and a very unbelievable turn-around of character, and is generally not much fun.
Still, this is a light-hearted little film which, though it may not have you rolling in the aisles, will at least leave you with a smile. Enough reason to watch! And yes, Motilal makes for a nice hero. Not heroic, not macho. Nice.